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Half a great news story
A sometimes lively, sometimes academic account of newsroom personalities and practices
Peter Desbarats
Vancouver Sun
PACIFIC PRESS: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver's Newspaper Monopoly, By Marc Edge, New Star Books, 450 pages ($39)

Marc Edge's comprehensive history of Vancouver newspapers from the mid-1950s to the early '90s originated as a dissertation for the PhD in mass communication he earned this year at an American journalism school. He doesn't hide that fact -- it's acknowledged in one sentence in the preface -- but neither do he and his publisher exactly advertise it. Some readers might be led, by the subtitle's mention of "the unauthorized story" and Pierre Berton's enthusiastic foreword, to assume that this is a real book. But once they become immersed in its 450 pages, including 58 pages of endnotes, they will soon realize that they're in the coils of a doctoral dissertation.

The key feature of this particular academic specimen is that somewhere inside it is a real book struggling to get out. Despite his two graduate degrees, Marc Edge is still at heart the Vancouver journalist who worked at The Province from 1974 until leaving "in exasperation" in 1993 to pursue an academic career. He still loves to tell a good story, and plenty of rollicking newsroom tales have been imported into this book Many are taken from the published memoirs of Vancouver journalists who gained national reputations -- columnist Allan Fotheringham, radio personality Jack Webster and publisher Stuart Keate, for example -- and it's useful, as well as fun, to have them assembled here and placed in historical context.

This is partly what drew the attention of Berton, who began his own career in what he remembers, in his foreword, as "perhaps, the liveliest newspaper town in Canada, if not in North America." Like Berton, Edge mourns the passing of an era when journalists "were not ruled by the bottom line," and he sadly chronicles the capture of the news media by what Berton described as "large, semi-anonymous corporations that swallow newspapers whole, merge them, water them down, and in the interests of greater and greater profit, all but destroy them."

In this single sentence, Berton captures the essence of the other half of the book Edge has written, his detailed academic history of Vancouver's newspaper wars, packed with financial and circulation statistics. Unfortunately, this coexists awkwardly at times with the human dramas of the journalists. Reading these alternating sections of the book is a little like being yanked quickly back and forth between a riotous party at the local press club and a university lecture on The Changing Ownership Structure of Canadian Media and Its Socio-political Implications.

Merging these two perspectives in a single work, and satisfying not only communications scholars but also readers with a casual interest in news media, would present a formidable challenge to any author. Edge only partly overcomes it. From the perspective of an ordinary reader, the academic analysis interferes with the narrative flow of journalists' stories; from the academic point of view, the inclusion of many of the human dramas that unfolded in Vancouver's newsrooms, and his own emotional reactions to them, makes it difficult for Edge to distance himself from the local scene and present the larger factors involved in the decline of Vancouver's newspapers.

For example, the "good old days" of newspapers before television were often not the golden age some of us remember. Looking through the files of old newspapers where one worked and which one fondly remembers is often, as I've discovered, an exercise in disillusionment. But no matter how good or bad they may have been, how venal or public-spirited individual publishers were or how idealistic or greedy the journalists they employed, huge social and technological changes in recent decades have gradually eroded the role of all newspapers as our dominant medium of information. The rapid emergence of television signalled the end of meaningful competition between local daily newspapers and, in fact, the end of many of these newspapers. Now the Internet has created a world where newspapers are valued primarily as potential partners in multimedia news operations.

In this global context, even such major local events as the merger of Vancouver's two dailies within Pacific Press in 1957 can be seen as simply one of various responses being made at the time to deteriorating conditions for newspapers that were beyond the control of any single publisher. Because this larger view is not sufficiently present in this book, Edge tends to exaggerate the significance of local media mergers, policies adopted by local publishers and editors, and disruptive local newspaper strikes and lockouts. Yet these were all just symptoms of a declining industry that were also evident in every other major Canadian city, in one form or another, and in virtually every developed country.

The preface to Edge's book briefly moves it forward from the recent Age of Media Concentration to the current Age of Convergence. He describes his history of Pacific Press as "a case study of the adverse effects of removing competition from the marketplace of ideas," and it certainly is that. He goes on to hope that his work "will provide some insights into how better to facilitate healthy journalism by showing how unchecked corporate control over the news has proven a disservice to the community and, ultimately, to the owners of the press."

If he had developed and amplified more of these insights arising from his research, he might have produced a more engaging, even controversial book. As it is, his history of Pacific Press is a must-read for every student of mass communication in Canada, a fascinating read for journalists and other professional communicators and, in selected chapters, a lively revelation of newsroom personalities and practices for anyone who loves newspapers.

Peter Desbarats is the former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of Western Ontario.

 Copyright 2001 Vancouver Sun
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